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Developments in computer hardware and software are deeply intertwined. For years, software developers pushed hardware manufacturers to come up with faster processors and bigger hard drives so they could create programs offering more functionality and features for end users. Hardware manufacturers obliged, driving a continuous cycle of improved performance. 

Today, updating software is an almost invisible process for end users. When you log on to your computer in the morning, you might see a notification that your operating system or a particular program has been updated overnight. You probably don’t even pay much attention to it--unless, that is, your computer starts behaving strangely.

“As new hardware is released, software developers are usually the most eager audience to find out the latest enhancements,” says RJ Martino, CEO of Scale Technology, a provider of IT services to small and midsize businesses (SMBs). “So, as software is created, it’s released on the assumption that you actually have the latest hardware.”

If you don’t have the latest hardware, many features of new or updated software simply cannot work. In a worst-case scenario, such as an update to the operating system, it might even slow down your computer’s performance. “Bottom line, if you want to be on the cutting edge of technology, you better make sure you’ve got cutting-edge hardware,” Martino says. 

Light Years Ahead of Older Hardware

The speed and processing power of new computers are light years ahead of older machines. “Computers used to be far more limited on resources. My phone has more than double the processing power of a high-end computer from 10 years ago,” says Brian Trahan, an IT engineer with Velo IT Group, a provider of managed IT services to growing businesses.

When hardware resources were limited, programmers would focus on finding the most efficient way possible to solve a software problem or achieve a goal, Trahan says. With processing power and memory now in relative abundance, the trend has been toward additional functionality rather than efficiency.

“Newer hardware has the ability to essentially brute force its way through the extra work these additional functions are putting on it,” he says. “Older hardware is incapable of keeping up.”

With most software and apps residing in the cloud these days, updates occur much more frequently than in the past. “Software is constantly revised and continuously improved to do more, be more accessible, and be more feature-rich,” says Aurimas Adomavicius, president of Devbridge Group, a custom software developer.

Unfortunately, accelerated upgrade cycles make it more likely that the performance of older devices will suffer, especially with newer operating systems. An update might come with a demanding graphic user interface or simply require more power to handle day-to-day tasks. Whether it’s a laptop, a smartphone, or some other device, “the newer it is, the more capable it is to run this new operating system flawlessly,” Adomavicius says.

Determining Hardware Upgrade Cycles

Historically, ideal hardware upgrade cycles for SMBs have been between 18 months and three years. Many businesses adopted a two-year upgrade cycle, because processing power was essentially doubling about every two years. Martino says that’s still a good rule of thumb for hardware that is mission-critical to your business, but you must also pay attention to software-driven needs.

Most software updates come with notes detailing “minimum” and “recommended” hardware requirements. As a general rule, you should make sure your hardware meets the recommended hardware requirements. “If the software is mission-critical to your organization, the last thing you want to do is skirt by on minimum hardware requirements,” Martino says. 

It is possible to upgrade some existing hardware to keep pace with expanding software requirements, but it’s a decision you should approach carefully. “Changing a processor is not a trivial cost in equipment or man hours,” Trahan cautions. “If a new processor is needed, it’s virtually never worth upgrading a machine. It’s better to repurpose it and buy a new one.”

Business software will continue to get better and better, adding more new features and becoming easier to use. As a small-business owner, you can leverage that to drive the same kind of continuous improvement in your business--but only if you have hardware that can keep up with all that the new software has to offer.


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